We are all going to die. But we also avoid thinking about our mortality. And we are likely to reflect on our deathbeds that we didn’t spend time doing on the most important things during our life. I’ve had some near death experiences – tumbled over a waterfall, got pushed in front of a speeding car, missed a bus that ended up horrifically crashing – and I’m a fairly risk tolerant person. So I reflect on my mortality a lot, but I never do it from a place of fear or negativity. Reflecting on such experiences is motivating. Here are five ways to embrace your mortality.
Walk in cemeteries
Robin Sharma’s Mastery Session about “Cemetery Walking” inspired me to write this post. He told a story about walking through a cemetery on Mauritius: “As I walked through the cemetery I saw these crosses and I saw some tombstones. Some looked very old, a few graves looked fresh. It reminded me really about the shortness of life.” Whatever moves you about the tombstones – the years lived or the summative words etched in stone – when we come across the grave of someone who our age, well, we can’t help but think about our own mortality, how we’re living life, and what, if anything, might need to change.
For many years before he passed away, my dad’s best friend spent hours every weekend reading obituaries. Sharma talks about how this activity isn’t morbid, but a positive exploration of lives well lived. Seeking out inspiration from obituaries isn’t a novel idea. Founder of Career Cycles, Mark Franklin, observes that we can be inspired by “the long view of career stories” that appear in obituaries:
When you read an obituary you get both the long view and the highlights of that person’s career. You begin to see that one chapter follows another, and we can create many chapters in a lifetime. Celebrate the good chapters. And when a chapter, or even a page, isn’t working out, tell yourself, ‘this too shall pass.’ The long view helps put current career crises in perspective.
There is no road map for a successful life or career. There are themes and great stories, but the surprises, disruptions and exploring of passions (or not) ensure that life is not a linear process. Obituaries reveal this truth and can help make us feel more comfortable about the journey.
Order egg salad sandwiches
A mentor of mine used to give a workshop about being street smart (or “street savvy” as he called it) to students in the graduate course I taught. He presented one slide that simply had the words “egg salad sandwiches” in clean black text. Incongruently, he advised the audience about the importance of leading with kindness, empathy and gratitude and told a few stories that reinforced the message. And then he paused ever so briefly and said, “if you treat people badly and always think of yourself then you’re not going to need many egg salad sandwiches at your funeral because nobody will come!”
I think that a life well-lived is partially highlighted by the number of people who attend your funeral and the awesome stories that they share.
Too many of us keep feelings, ideas and feedback to ourselves. In an article for Psychology Today, Barton Goldsmith argues that people who repress their feelings have a more difficult time with life’s disappointments: “In addition, holding in painful emotions has been linked to illness and emotional distress. It also sucks up a lot of time that could be used for much more pleasant activities.” So, holding in negative emotions or thoughts can make us sick and definitely makes us sad.
According to the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness is probably good for your health, too: “…people who focused on a personal grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increased muscle tension and feelings of being less in control.” As a natural and open sharer of feelings and thoughts I identify with this research and am deeply aware of how my vulnerability and ability to embrace difficult conversations with my closest friends and colleagues makes life just a little bit lighter and easier. So, write letters, express gratitude and offer critical feedback, which are all gifts to share with our communities. If you’re not sure how to start, begin by reading obituaries before comics!
Live in the moment
Every year I re-read and/or reflect on “the regrets of the dying” by Susie Steiner in The Guardian. As a hint, “working more” or “binging on Netflix” weren’t on the list. Living life on your terms, keeping in touch with friends, and working less were all on the list. A bad habit that I need to break is my connection to my mobile devices, especially when in the presence of my family.
Being a more engaged and fully present parent enhances well-being for everyone and it creates powerful building blocks for our lifelong relationship, too. Finally, in addition to being more present in our important relationships we can be more present in terms of building knowledge and intelligence. For example, focusing more on reading than social media makes us happier and smarter, too. For example, if the average North American transferred their time on social media to reading they could finish about 200 books in a year. So, create a kid-friendly morning routine, listen to podcasts and read books, not status updates!